We are a family of 4, with two kids aged 8 and 10. We just back from a 9 day cruise with Royal Caribbeans Explorer of the Seas, disembarking Cape Liberty NJ on March 11th, 2011, and included the ports of San Juan, St. Thomas, Samana, and Labadee (Haiti). This was our second cruise, our first being last March (2010) on the Carnival Spirit for 8 nights, out of San Diego, California. That cruise included the ports of Acapulco, Zihuatanejo, and Manzanillo. I have always found it helpful when reviews are direct comparisons, so that's what I will try and do.
The Explorer of the Seas departed out of Cape Liberty, NJ. We drove down from Canada the day before and stayed in Scranton, PA for the night. Our drive down the the port the next day took about 2 hrs, traffic was no problem most of the way. The only slowdown was on the bridge crossing into Bayonne, NJ. Word of Caution...The current Garmin GPS maps are not correct and do not have the new road leading into the port...resulted in about a 10 min. delay. When you drive in, follow the signs to the drop area (big white tent)where you pull in to unload. Porters are there to direct you, but things move fast so be ready. When done unloading, let your fellow passengers stay with the luggage and you can go and park your vehicle, after paying the $19/day parking fee. It is a short walk back to the tent, I believe there is a shuttle available if needed. From here on, its a pretty standard process. One difference is the shuttle bus you have to take to the ship when ready, even though the ship is only about a ships length away... not sure why they do this, is a pain if carrying a lot of carry on luggage. Please keep in mind Cape Liberty is kinda dumpy... not your typical cruise port.
San Diego is a gorgeous port city, embarkation was very smooth, and the ship was directly at the pier.
Other than the port city, embarkation for both boats is pretty similar, a tie here, just way more rushed in Cape Liberty.
On our cruise last year, we had a balcony room and this year on the Explorer we though we would try an inside cabin.. BIG MISTAKE....NEVER AGAIN. The higher price of Royal Caribbean meant that our inside cabin was more expensive than our balcony room on the Carnival Spirit.... go figure. My parents choose a balcony room on the Explorer, so I was able to compare.
This may surprise a lot of people, but the balcony room on the Spirit was FAR SUPERIOR to the balcony room on the Explorer. Reasons:
1. Carnival Spirit gave us bathrobes, Royal Caribbean did not
2. Bathroom and shower on Spirit was much bigger than the Explorer. Shower on Explorer was so small I had to open the shower doors to bend over to wash my feet....the Spirit used a shower curtain... much better option. Spirit also offered a much bigger vanity. In addition, the closet space was much smaller on the Explorer...Carpets were also very stained on the Explorer... Spirit was much cleaner. The balcony handrail on the Spirit was nicely varnished and gleamed, Explorer handrail was badly weathered....looked terrible.
4. Mattress's on the Explorer were terribly worn out, our party had 4 cabins and we all agreed on that poing...the sides were broken down. Mattress on the Carnival Spirit were some of the best I have ever slept on. I had to get the cabin steward to get me a egg crate the mattress was so bad, first time I have ever had to do this.
Pool and Rec. Areas
Again, hands down to the Carnival Spirit. The Explorer basically has one pool area for most passengers. There is another pool, but was for adults only, and did not seat that many people. That rest of the passengers had to cram into the main pool area, and let me tell you, it was CRAMPED. The loungers are placed arm to arm.. making you crawl in and out of them from the end. To make things worse, there are two areas sectioned off for "Platinum" members... and were mostly empty.... That sucks. In addition, there was no pool grill, making a pain at lunch with kids, having to get dressed to go to the Windjammer. They enforce the pool ware issue, we were turned away at lunch because one of my daughters was wearing a beach cover up that was "too short"....Explorer does have two advantages, the rock climbing wall and the skating rink, kids loved that.
The Carnival Spirit has 3 distinct pool areas, all open to everyone. This enabled people to spread out. The Fantail pool was our favourite, lots of space to spread out and the water slide was there also. We never felt cramped on the Spirit, and there was a poolside grill offering breakfast and lunch... made the days at sea much more enjoyable around the pool.
Explorer is showing its age, maybe because it is traveling in the North Atlantic more. There is rust everywhere, and a lot of carpets were stained. There was also a strong smell of sewage on more then one day. The Spirit was in better shape overall, and was generally better laid and easier to get around. One issue that was really noticeable was the wait for the elevators. On the Explorer, we always had a very long wait, with teens running up and down the elevators. On the Spirit, the waits were noticeably shorter.
Another issue was the amount of loungers left on deck 12 at night on the Explorer. The loungers were lined up against the railing, making it almost impossible to get to the rail to enjoy the sail aways and views. On the Spirit, excess loungers were stacked up at night, freeing up space on the decks to walk, run and stroll at night. Also, on the Explorer, there is no where to eat outside, or sit at a table to enjoy your lunch... Spirit has many areas to sit and eat.
Regardless of what people say, food on both ships were comparable, with a few notables. The Windjammer on the Explorer closed at 9:30 every evening, way to early. The grill (forgot name)on the Spirit was open much later, making it less of a rush if you didn't want to use the dining room. One odd thing on the Explorer was that the Windjammer didn't even open till 6:30 pm for summer....weird. As mentioned earlier, the lack of a pool grill on the Explorer was a real disadvantage.
Bar service on the Explorer was absolutely brutal. On most occasions when ordering a drink at the Windjammer and the Dining room, it took ~20 min. to get your drink, then another 20 min. to get your Sign and Sail Card back. Basically, you got one drink at supper because it took so long. On the Spirit, service was much better.
Probably the most important thing, the coffee on the Explorer was probably some of the worst I have ever had.... coffee on the Spirit wasn't perfect, but it was better than the Explorer. If your looking for coffee on the Explorer, go to the coffee shop on deck 5... its drinkable there.
San Juan - good stop, did a city tour for $20 pp, well worth it.
St. Thomas - gorgeous, rented a sail boat for a snorkel trip to Turtle Cove
Samana - a dump, but we did a private tour to La Playita beach... good day and a great beach.
Labadee - gorgeous, but I had some moral issues being there, watching the kids in the woods begging for food, and military walking around with MP5's to keep them out....Not sure if I will ever return there, if a cruise stops there, I will pass on it. Labadee displays such gluttony in the face of desperation...
We went to the ice show, its well worth it, a good show. Didn't do any other shows, to busy with the kids.
Again, hands down Carnival wins here.... My kids loved the Carnival program, and got bored very quickly on the Explorer. They said they did the same thing over and over again on the Explorer. We agreed that if the kids didn't want to go to kids camp, they didn't have to. That meant that they spend more time with us on this trip, which was a good thing, sometimes. Carnival's program is much more diverse than it was on the Explorer. The kids pool and water slide was on the stern of the explorer, and was way out of the way. It seemed that at the last minute, Royal Caribbean threw the kids pool in because they forgot to...and also seems they try to keep the kids away from the rest of the boat... the only problem with that is that then the parents are also away from the rest of the passengers..If your traveling with kids and want them to enjoy themselves, and give yourselves some adult time, GO ON CARNIVAL....
Both were long and behind schedule. The Carnival Spirit did the Customs thing on board, which resulted in long lines in the morning to the Pharaohs theatre, then waited in the grill till we finally got off. (about 11 am). On the Explorer, Customs was done on shore, with all your luggage in hand, making it much more difficult if traveling with kids and a lot of luggage. we finally got off about 10:30, but then had to clear customs, so in the end was the same.
We had a good vacation, but we were expecting more from Royal Caribbean. It is a general thought that they are a step above Carnival, but from what I saw, this was not the case. My opinion is that Carnival is a much better value, they just don't offer the itineraries that RCCL does. If the cruise suits us, our next one will be on Carnival, or may try NCL.